Alumnae Bulletin May 2010

Speaking Out

By Kathryn Roth-Douquet '86

My children only know wartime. They are among nearly 900,000 children in this country who have kissed goodbye a parent bound for Iraq or Afghanistan. My husband is serving his third combat deployment wiht the Marine Corps. Several times a week, they Skype with their daddy in his concrete barracks, wearing his regulation green sweats.

"I wish there was no such thing as Daddy-sickness," my 8-year-old said recently. I sometimes think his absence is even harder for me. I wasn't raised inured to war, and its coming in 2003 was a tremendous shock. To this day I mind terribly being separated from my partner, my yang.

The force is all volunteer, so of course we are free to go. Yet we stay, in order to take part in a "cause greater than self," as John McCain famously said. A lot of my adult life has been spent in some form of public service, much of it politicallyrelated, including working in President Clinton's White House. Somewhere during that period, I came to realize that public service wasn't just doing what I wanted to do at the moment, but also moving forward with democratic action. It meant allowing our constitutional mechanisms to forge a unity out of 300 million cantankerous and disagreeable and self-regarding souls so that we collectively could make policy and act as a nation. When my family takes part in the military service of our country, we throw our lot in with those flawed actors that nevertheless make up the best system of government I know of.

While working in government, I came to realize that what our military does in the world is enormously varied, and incredibly consequential. When the United States sends people to action around the world, whether it be humanitarian or stabilization or counterinsurgency, it matters who we send and how well they do their job. Another aspect of being part of "a cause greater than self" is that it lets our family live in an unusual community of goodwill, unusual at least compared to how I've lived outside the military. Because my neighbors and I are all very much in the same boat, we take care of each other and each other's kids constantly. The children live in a throwback to childhoods of 40 years ago, where they roam from yard to yard for hours every day, involved in spontaneous multi-age imaginative play and pickup sports games, tree climbing and hole-digging and marsh-exploring. In an odd way, it can feel like a very protected way to live.

And yet, sometimes I am absolutely ready to pack it up. I was wondering why we keep at it recently as the kids and I returned from visiting my husband on his mid-year, two-week R&R leave. That's how much we get to see him in the course of a year, two weeks. As we walked through U.S. airports en route home, the remoteness of this war for most Americans was palpable to me. Only about 1 percent have fought in it or are in the immediate family of someone who has. Never before, says Mike O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institute, have so few done so much for so long. One of my friends said to me, "Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq have become like Korea, the forgotten war." My reaction to that is, "Okay then, I'll forget it, too." After all, what creates that sense of goodwill for those of us who serve is the idea that we are actually serving the country. If the country seems ambivalent, confused, or disinterested, it's hard to feel terribly interested ourselves. We may not be able to change that—to create a sophisticated or engaged sense of the operations we send our military on, but we can perhaps find common ground in an appreciation for service.

I work with an organization called Blue Star Families, whose goal is strengthening and supporting military families, and building partnerships with communities and organizations outside the military to create a better sense of support. We conducted a survey last year, and its major finding was that 94 percent of military families reported they do not believe that the larger community truly understands or appreciates the sacrifices they make for the country. I think people do in fact care, but don't know what to do. I hope Blue Star Families can help change that.

We are working with non-profit organizations and the government to develop programs such as a community blueprint for cities to help them interact with and support the military families and veterans in their environs. We have a number of programs under the rubric Operation Appreciation to help those in the larger community reach out to support military families. This includes a letter writing program for folks to send letters to a military spouse, child or parent of a deployed service member, thanking them for their service. An optional "honor card" goes along with that. On the card, which reads, "In honor of your service to the country, I am inspired to do the following community service…," writers can fill in the service of their choice—mentoring a youth, planting a garden, cleaning up a park. Believe me, that's a great card to receive. This commitment to service and to others is the kind of gesture that can bring cheer—and the ability to hang on—to us all.